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Knudsen Asks Land Board To Take Up Private Water Rights Issue At Next Meeting

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen has asked the Montana Board of Land Commissioners to remove the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s decision-making authority over private water rights at the Board’s meeting next month.

At a Land Board meeting Monday, April 15, Attorney General Knudsen and the other commissioners heard from farmers and ranchers who are concerned by the DNRC’s decision to take water rights from landowners who utilize their private water on public land they are leasing from the state to irrigate state land or provide water for their cattle. Attorney General Knudsen’s proposal before the commissioners would require the DNRC to get approval from the Land Board before making any decisions regarding the water rights of private landowners.

“After extensive public comment during Monday’s meeting it’s clear the Land Board needs to exercise greater oversight regarding the DNRC’s actions regarding private property rights,” Attorney General Knudsen said. “I will continue to stand up for Montana’s farmers and ranchers in defending their livelihoods.”

The current DNRC policy is impacting a large number of farmers and ranchers across the state. In one case before the Montana Supreme Court, Schutter v. the Montana Board of Land Commissioners, potato farmers from Gallatin County utilized their private water to irrigate their crops on state-leased land. In 2019, the state attempted to add the State of Montana as a co-owner to the landowner’s private well. DNRC’s position is that since the Schutters were using private water on state-leased land, the state could claim the private-water rights. Attorney General Knudsen filed an amicus brief last year in support of the farmers.

Attorney General Knudsen proposed the following language to be considered at the next Land Board meeting: “I move to immediately revoke the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s delegated authority to make legal decisions or legal claims on behalf of the Montana Board of Land Commissioners regarding any and all water right ownership issues arising on Montana state-owned lands; and to require specific Montana Board of Land Commissioner approval for each and every legal decision or legal claim involving water right ownership on Montana stateowned lands.”

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